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Paul Grobstein's picture

"what might be" as a replacement for "what's out there"

Having perhaps had more experience with reactions to the idea that   "patterns ... [are] an artifact of our filter," I'm less surprised than Wil is  by encountering resistance to it, and more interested in the reasons for that resistance - and in trying to figure out what story reflecting the relevant observations would achieve more interpersonal agreement. 

For me, the relevant observations are both historical and neurobiopsychological.  The history of science is one of repeated efforts to achieve a definitive description of what is actually "out there," independent of an observer, each followed by recognition that such descriptions are not actually definitive, that there are previously uconceived ways of making sense of existing observations (cf The Nature of Science: The Problem of "Unconceived Alternatives and its Significance and Science as Story Telling and Story Revising).  The historical pattern suggests not asymptotic movement toward a final description but rather that each successive description is itself the progenitor of new descriptive possibilities.

The relevant neuropsychobiological observations have to do with ambiguous figures and what they reveal about human perception (cf Getting It Less Wrong, the Brain's Way and  Reality: Construction, Deconstruction, and Reconstruction and  Reality Reconsidered, From a Brain Perspective and From the Subjective/Personal to the Objective/Interpersonal and Back Again).  What we see (hear, feel, etc) is, if we presume no special access to the mystical/eternal, reflects a combination of "infomed guessing" and "conceiving alternatives," and hence is always subject to revision based on new observations and/or the conception of new alternatives.  And may always be different from what other people see.

One might argue that neither the historical record nor the specifics of how the brain works eliminate the possibility that there is actually a definitive something "out there" but simply account for our existing inability to discern it.  We have a "blind spot."  And that could of course be.  But if so, its a limitation not of science to date nor of the brain but rather of any inductive/empirical process of making sense of things.  No matter how many observations one has available, there will always be an infinite number of different ways to make sense of it.  In short, any description we provide will always be a context-dependent one. 

What's "really" out there?  If we eliminate all the filtering, as well as all the guessing and conceiving of alternatives?  My guess is noise, nothing interesting or meaningful at all (cf Chance in life and the world), that we create meaning by the act of perceiving.  Whether that's so or not, the more general point is that we can't either see or talk about what is "actually" out there.  All we can see or talk about is the meaning we make of it, individually and collectively.  As Wittgenstein said, "what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

That we are always working in "subjective" worlds that may be different in different people is a disturbing idea not only in the context of science but also in the context of human interpersonal interactions and social organization (see From ambiguity to skepticism to social organization).  It seems to require a change in not only how we think about the objective of science but about how we think about the objective of interpersonal and social exchange as well.  The challenge was well put in our conversation

"What is the point of teaching/talking if everything is dependent on a variable observer context?" 

We all tend to presume that "teaching/talking" has as its objective reaching some shared agreement, and so is threatened if we each see things from different perspectives.   An alternate perspective, consistent with the evolving systems framework (and a revised conception of science) is that "teaching/talking" is not actually a way to become more similar but rather a way to make clearer our differences so that they in turn can generate "previously unconceived alternatives."  

"Objectivity" is perhaps rooted in "subjectivity" and in turn leads to enhanced "subjectivity" that creates new "objectivity" ad infinitum?  And the point of "teaching/talking" and science and evolving systems generally is not to get to a particular place but rather to conceive new places?  Would "patterns ... [are] an artifact" be less disturbing in the context of that story?


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